This is the third hypothetical in our series showing how well-intentioned employers can violate unfamiliar state laws.
The manager of a restaurant in Hartford, Connecticut calls you regarding an outspoken cook who frequently expresses his views on controversial topics. All of the cooks discuss a broad range of topics while working, and these discussions do not interfere with their performance. Nevertheless, the manager has advised the cook that he should be careful about offending others with his views on sensitive topics. The cook responds that this is America, and he has a constitutional right to say whatever he wants. The manager asks you whether this is true. You correctly advise the manager that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not apply to private employers. Rather, federal constitutional rights only come into play if there is some form of “state action.” The next time the cook expresses his view on a controversial topic, the manager fires him.
The employee files suit under Connecticut state law which prohibits the discipline or discharge of an employee for exercising his or her rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. See Conn. Gen. Stat. §31-51q. The employee prevails. In addition to reinstatement, the employee is awarded his attorneys fees, back pay, and $1 million in punitive damages by a jury that was offended by the Company’s attempt to suppress the cook’s right to free speech.
If you have any questions about this state law or have any other employment issues, do not hesitate to contact Bryan Cave’s Labor and Employment Client Service Group.